The United States and its allies clearly were blindsided by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pretentious deployment of troops, combat aircraft and tanks to a base near Latakia, Syria. The U.S. response to this incursion was that sooner or later, he will have to show progress in reducing ISIS influence in Syria while taming Assad’s attacks on his own people. “Putin owns this problem now, even if he doesn’t know that yet,” one administration official said.
Some even suggest that it might be best to “walk away from Syria and let Putin take responsibility for the whole thing.” Unclear, however, is what Putin really expects to accomplish. To start, we go to a hypothetical interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin with answers based on recent comments made by Putin or his top advisors:
Q: Mr. President, your bold deployment of military forces into Syria has seemingly raised the stakes for all nations involved. Many analysts believe that your effort to sustain the Assad reign of terror only will prolong the agony of the Syrian people. What is your goal in Syria?
A: It’s really quite simple. ISIS is becoming stronger every day with recruits from around the world, including the U.S., joining their violent cause at an alarming rate. ISIS is a threat everywhere in the world, and I don’t want to have to fight them within my country’s borders. Strong leadership is needed.
Q: Why now? And why you? What triggered this move?
A: The United States has abandoned its leadership role in the Middle East. President Obama’s refusal to establish a ground-based military presence in Syria, coupled with the less than satisfactory outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, left a void in the region. Further, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has foundered. The $500 million U.S. program to train 5,000 Syrian fighters to take on ISIS failed badly. But there is more. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. ISIS controls vast territories of Iraq, and the Taliban just captured the important northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz, where thousands of U.S.-trained Afghan troops ran from a few hundred Taliban soldiers. Why me? Because I am willing to commit combat power. I am welcomed by the leadership of Syria, and I have the support of my people at home.
Q: What about the poll by Moscow’s Levada Center showing that only 39 percent of Russian respondents support your policy towards the Assad regime and 69 percent oppose direct military intervention in Syria?
A: More propaganda from a few dissidents. I have very strong support from the citizens of my country.
Q: There are many on-scene reports indicating that your first bombing raids killed more than 30 innocent people in areas not occupied by ISIS.
A: Our opening air missions were preemptive strikes against militants. No civilians were killed. We are ready for such information attacks. The first false reports came even before our jets took off. Your Pentagon manufactured this information. You would, of course, understand that we also will be attacking other groups that hinder our efforts in Syria.
Q: While it is clear to many international observers that President Assad’s days are numbered, your strategy depends on him remaining in power. As someone whose influence is apparently waning, who has wantonly killed more than 250,000 of his citizens, and who is responsible for 3 million refugees seeking asylum elsewhere in the world, why should he be kept in office?
A: Russia’s goal is to defend Assad; whoever is against him is a destabilizing factor. It would be an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, which are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face. Assad’s removal would create political cacophony and hand the country to ISIS.
Q: One last question. There are now 12 countries bombing targets in Syria. Aren’t you worried that a split-second misjudgment on the part of just one of these pilots would add a wholly new and dangerous dimension to the situation?
A: We are setting up a coordination center in Baghdad to control Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Russian air sorties. We did advise the Americans where we planned to strike and warned them to clear the skies.
As the past few days have shown clearly, Putin is in Syria to shore up a failing tyrant and, using ISIS as a pretext, to destroy systematically elements opposing Assad. Several U.S. analysts, however, see a deeper agenda emerging: From his early KGB days until the present, Putin has feared a popular uprising that would destroy his own country. He witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union and the chaos brought about by U.S.-supported leadership changes in Egypt, Libya and Iraq. Consequently, Putin fears that the United States plans to destroy Russia by covertly inflaming dissidents to revolutionary fervor.
Putin may not fully accomplish his objectives of keeping Assad in power indefinitely and defeating ISIS, but his demonstrated willingness to crush resistance movements brutally, imperiling leaders of other nations, will not be lost on the Russian people.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.